Monthly Archives: April 2016

ELEGY Donmar, WC1

SCIENCE AND THE DISAPPEARING SELF

 

 

Suppose neuroscience could cure creeping brain deterioration by taking out whole networks of decaying neurons and replacing them with silicon, guaranteeing functionality, but wiping years of memory. Would you say yes – for yourself or a loved one – as the price of avoiding undignified decline? How frightening is it for the patient to contemplate losing “what binds me to me”, as Zoe Wanamaker’s Lorna puts it in this brief, brilliant, alarming piece? And how wrenching for a long-term spouse to find herself looked at with a stranger’s dispassionate , judging disaste?

 

 
Amnesia and dementia are preoccupying theatres right now. Only weeks ago the Donmar did it a larkier way, as Anouilh’s Welcome Home Captain Fox saw a forgetful soldier confronting his unsavoury previous life; the Park had Alistair McGowan forgetting his gay lover and rediscovering painting, in Peter Quilter’s 4000 Days; Florian Zeller’s The Father won Kenneth Cranham an Olivier.

 

 
The theme particularly suits theatre with its ability to confuse our sense of reality, time, and the reliability of speakers. And few writers are better suited to it than Nick Payne, whose dreamlike, episodic fugue of a play CONSTELLATIONS had great success, and whose extraordinary INCOGNITO was in my view far better, circling around the fate of Einstein’s brain and giving the pain of forgetfulness voice in the unforgettable line “We are a blip within a blip in an abyss”.

 

 
This time Payne is takes on the possibility of deliberately induced, therapeutic amnesia – not(as in the film Eternal Sunlight of the Spotless Mind) just to wipe out unwanted exes but to treat disease. The story is told backwards, beginning with an unnerving encounter between Carrie (Barbara Flynn) a retired RE teacher, and a slightly irritated Lorna (Zoe Wanamaker). Carrie is plying a newly discharged Lorna with questions and reminders; we discover that they were happily married, having met in their forties. Yet now in Lorna, not a fleck of memory or affection remains.

 

 

 

Rolling backwards, under Josie Rourke’s tight direction, we see the stages Carrie went through as Lorna became ever more confused, aggressive, angry and unpredictable. This backward travel is brilliantly effective because – after being slightly embarrassed by the galumphing neediness of Flynn’s heartbreakng Carrie, met by Lorna’s scorn at awkward reminders of their love, we gradually get to see and believe in that love. It makes the loss all the more horrifying: we see caring, kindly reassurance from Carrie as the confusion mounts, with Wanamaker – as ever a packet of electric energy – terrifying in bursts of anguished aggression. Then earlier still, the couple face the grim diagnosis together, loving, even joking, firm in their devotion. It is done with shattering credible honesty, the two women deep in tune. We learn too that Lorna was the more reluctant of the two, protesting “This isn’t progress!” “It could save your life!” “But I want THIS life”. And bitterly, we see that the treatment was given the green light under Lasting Power of Attorney by Carrie: who now must suffer most. The philosophical and ethical questions burn deep.

 

 

In between , Nina Sosanya as the doctor explains, persuades, speaks of neurons and myelin and axons and how memory cannot be replaced because it is non-linear and associative, though there have been experiments on “mice, rats and zebra fish” which sadly became “psychotic”. Behind them, Tom Scutt’s set is a great glass pillar containing a vast, dead oaktree trunk riven as if by lightning, and intermittently obscured by smoke. A metaphor almost too devastating, as the final moments, seventy minutes in, return us to scene one and a crisp, unemotional Wanamaker rejecting her once-beloved’s yearning for one fond word, a kiss, a sign…
box office 0844 871 7624 to 18 June
principal sponsor : Barclays

rating     four   4 Meece Rating

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CLYBOURNE PARK Richmond & TOURING

A MODERN MASTERPIECE

 
This is that finely balanced thing: a comedy built around a tragedy. Six summers ago, a newfledged critic for the Times, I wrote about its British premiere: “Bruce Norris’ play is billed as a satire on race and property in America, in 1959 and then the present day, but it reaches wider. Norris is in fact occupying territory somewhere between Arthur Miller and vintage Ayckbourn, and holding it triumphantly.”

 

 
His central idea is the observation that inner-suburban areas which once were all-white, dreading a black influx, find themselves fifty years later dominated by a black community and at at risk of a gentrifying invasion of white people drawn by promiximity to “downtown”… which might ring some bells in our cities. We first meet the ‘50s couple, covering the deep pain of a two-year-old tragedy with banal banter, and finally succumbing to rage or tears in dispute with a pastor and a frightful neighbour who is horrified at their selling to a black family. In Act 2 we meet the 2009 moderns, locked in fraught debate as the white incomers plan to rebuild the same house bigger, and the black locals (upwardly mobile now but descended from the ‘50s incomers) civilly disguise their contempt.

 

 

 

The Court’s version went to the West End, but has pretty much vanished from our canon of modern classics since. So cheer for Daniel Buckroyd of the Colchester Mercury, whose elegant and thoughtful productions tour the land (link below) and redress the howling injustice of Londoners getting all the fun. I only wish that the tour was heading into more towns where, as in Norris’ imagined neighbourhood, there are mingled sensitivities about both house prices and race. Or, as Bev and Russ in Act 1 would say , the matter of “coloureds” – until Jim the dreadful patron1zing vicar says piously ” don’t we say Negro now?”

 

 
The slyness of Norris’ brilliant text mines awkwardnesses like that, in both the 1959 and 2009 acts. Hypocrisy, deep worried prejudice  and self- interested alarm contort language and betray themselves. I had remembered the magnificently shocking second act in which the moderns are constantly on their mobiles, debate hopelessly, and manage, one after another, to offend one another (on race, gayness, feminism, patriotism, disability, rape, vulgarity, you name it). You hear the actual gasps before the laughs: even at the show I saw, a last matinee on a quiet day in Colchester,

 

 

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Buckroyd’s cast are tremendous: Mark Womack particularly as the enduring, suffering Russ in the first act, and Gloria Onitiri deploying – as the black ‘50s maid and the successful modern woman – first dignity, and then venomous, brittle killer timing. Another shout for Ben Deery’s infuriating malicious geek Karl in the first half; but they are all great, perfect casting and solidly at ease as an ensemble.

 

 
What I had forgotten about is Norris’ satisfying, sly mystifications: you only gradually see what is happening in both acts. The first begins in deliberately banal uncomical chat between the 1959 couple, the second in a committee whose purpose one cannot quite grasp. But clarity grows, and the growing interweaving of themes, remarks, and character traits between the two disparate acts is masterful. Nor does Norris fall into the trap of exaggerating the similarities of then and now: the second Act is not a mirror image of naive 1959 racism, but a tricky modern swamp of hypocrisy, awkward liberalism and lurking unsayables.

 

 
And the tragedy stays at the heart of it. We come poignantly full circle to a final haunting, and a reminder that next to real loves and griefs , all offence is trivial. Brilliant.

 

 
Richmond Theatre to 30 APril, http://www.atgtickets.com/richmond
then touring Guildford, Cambridge, Oxford, Theatr Clwyd.
rating Five   5 Meece Rating

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SHOWBOAT NEW LONDON THEATRE WC2

ROLLING ALONG, CARRYING ALL BEFORE IT

 
Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly – you gotta laugh and you gotta cry. And believe me, you won’t help loving this stunning, flawless, celebratory production. Swooping down from a five-star run in Sheffield, it’s the swansong of its Artistic Director Daniel Evans as he leaves to run Chichester. So anyone in Chichester worrying about its future blockbuster musicals can calm down. This is as good as their GYPSY, though Kern and Hammerstein’s 1927 musical is less focused on one huge star: its joys and dramas and legendary numbers spread across an exuberant ensemble.

 

 
They spread over decades, too: there’s an epic quality to this grandaddy of the modern storytelling musical, as forty years go rollin’ along over showpeople and lovers. In 1887 we meet them on the levée at Natchez, Mississippi, black workers toiling under bales of cotton, white performers primping up for Captain Andy’s vaudeville night aboard the Cotton Blossom. From there to 1927 fortunes rise and fall, roulette wheels spin, hearts are broken , babies born, war and Prohibition and the KKK and the long, cruel backwash of old slavery define an America struggling into the new age.

 

 
It is an epic indeed, operatic and cinematic (old monochrome footage flickers by, setting the moment without fuss). It is funny and melancholy by turns. From the moment when the great paddle-steamer first rolls towards us, and bent beneath baskets and bales “coloured folk work while the white folk play” , the combination of seriousness and spectacle dazzles. But never at the expense of storytelling: innocent Magnolia and dashing Gaylord lock eyes on the wharf, Julie and her man are banished for their negro blood, Frank and Ellie-Mae bicker and seek their stardom, and Captain Andy (Malcolm Sinclair) grows old under the sharp tongue and rigid principles of his puritan wife. Everything happens, every big number rising like a wave and ebbing into gentleness, for the joy of Hammerstein’s book is in the contrasts of mood. Emmanuel Kojo’s deep beautiful renderings of Old Man River flow through the show, sometimes creating an actual physical frisson; the love duets of Gina Beck and Chris Peluso as Nola and Gaylord melt heartbreakingly together (these are fine, fine voices). Alistair David’s choreography gives us joyful, stamping dances in thrilling ensemble numbers. A wrenching farewell from father to child is followed by an angry, sozzled, unforgettable rendering of “Just my Bill” from Rebecca Trehearne’s Julie; abandoned Nola’s growlingly low contralto “Fish gotta swim” is frivolously reworked by the Trocadero’s sharp pianist into a ragtime beat. A triumphant ‘after the ball” actually had the front rows singing along. Sandra Marvin’ s Queenie and her Joe entertainingly define long patient and impatient marriage. More than one star is born in this cast tonight.

 

 
Oh, and one line rings particularly in the mind as Andy, in the new ‘20s world of flapper dresses, admires the ladylike poise of his granddaughter Kim . “When she sits on a chair” he growls “She realizes that the human knee is just a joint and not an entertainment”. That sticks, because when Danny Collins’ Frank dances his superbly bizarre, mad-twisted-grasshopper legwork completely negates that statement. This man’s knees are a entertainment, one you won’t forget.
soon forget. Especially if you go again. Which lots of us, I suspect, will.

 
box office 0844 412 4654 to 7 January 2017
rating Five   5 Meece Rating

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JUNGLE BOOK Theatre Royal Windsor & touring

GRIME AND GRACE IN THE URBAN JUNGLE

 
You never know what you’ll get from Poppy Burton-Morgan’s Metta Theatre. I can’t claim to have spotted every venture of her ten years, but definitely remember a site-specific Pirandello in a tiny cafe and updated Scheherezade tales at the Soho by modern Arab writers from Tunisia to Syria during the Arab Spring (Sindbad was a migrant to Italy, forerunner of today’s diaspora). Oh, and there was a haunting Alice in Wonderland spin-off in a tunnel under the V & A. I missed their full-scale Cosi fan Tutte in Oxford, and a children’s show about worms and baby bats. But now, touring towards the London Wonderground in August, here’s a circus and hip-hop ballet with a moral motive, inspired by a (posthumously rather startled) Rudyard Kipling.

 

 

Here’s a female Mowgli, Baloo as a beatboxing bin-man urging us to imagine “bare necessities on a bare stage”, and an urban jungle of skateboarding parkour wolves, a supercool Kaa, a trapezing vulture and an immense, fabulously muscled Shere Khan villain, Dean Stewart: whose CV proclaims him expert in the disciplines of “krump, popping, breaking (b-boy) contemporary, jazz and hip-hop” not to mention dancing behind Sugababes.

 

 

So if it does nothing else, the show will help educate confused middle-aged people like me about krump, grime and whatever b-boy is. Already Mums, Grans and teachers seem to be flocking in with children (including some tiny ones who seem totally au fait with urban culture, cheered Mowgli loudly and dragged their tottering Grans to their feet for the curtain call dance-off). It probably helps if the youngest arrive knowing the story of The Jungle Book; but after Disney and now this year’s new film, the odds are that most of them will. And Burton-Morgan’s version of the plot is compelling, and detailed in the programme (there is only sparse verbal narration, in rap).

 

 
Little Mowgli, a puppet at first and then the tiny, nimbly acrobatic and expressive Natalie Nicole James, loses her mother and is taken up by the wolf-pack and mentored by a gloriously comic breakdancing Baloo in a hi-vis jacket (Stefan Puxon). She escapes the monkeys, wards off Shere Khan with fire in a fabulous Red Flower dance, and when Akela is banished for failing a skateboard jump, goes back to the city – more marvellous dancing as robotic figures in suits jerk around with briefcases . She finds her lost mother who, in the most entertaining number of all, gets her out of her neat red jumpsuit and into a series of skirts, in which Mowgli performs different styles of dance – waltz, Charleston, ballet – each one descending into frenzied street-dance moves, especially striking in a tutu. Kendra J.Horsburgh is the choreographer, with Nicole James herself and Nathalie Alison (Kaa) credited for the acrobatic sections.

 

 

 

I am no dance critic, but can vouch for the excitement, the contrast, and the way that every move serves the theatrical narrative: though I did have to check it out a bit in the interval to be sure of some of the subtleties. The cast, rich in edgy dance and circus experience, are remarkable. Especially young Natalie’s Mowgli, whose lithe red-clad figure will stay in my mind’s eye a fair while : leaping, rolling, somersaulting, trapezing, clambering up the skewed lamp-posts of the set, duetting on an aerial hoop with Natalie Alison as the most graceful of vultures.

 
But if you want the oddest thought which flickered through my head, watching this portrait of the modern urban dispossessed (dance gives you a lot of time to think in sentences), it was about Kids’ Company. I realized that Baloo – friendly, vigorous, overenthusiastic but benign mentor of the lost child – was basically Camila Batmanghelidgh…

Touring: details at http://www.mettatheatre.co.uk
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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THE COMEDY ABOUT A BANK ROBBERY Criterion, W1

MISCHIEF THEATRE STRIKES AGAIN. HURRAH!

 

 

Years ago, a famous US television show called Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In hit on the strategy – as Ken Dodd had decades earlier, and still does – of firing off really cheesy jokes and puns, as lame as the oddly-famed Four Candles, but so fast and mercilessly thick that they become irresistibly funny and you had to gurgle along.  The prison scene which opens Mischief Theatre’s new venture made me briefly fear that they would stick to this formula, hoping it would sustain a full-length play.  Three to six pun-misunderstandings  per minute hit us, including a reiterated “Neil!” making people kneel, and “I see” misheard as “Icy”. That sort of thing. I fretted. But this is Mischief, I should have had faith: that burst, to get the audience cackling, is only one of the multiple mixed-genre tactics in their farcical spoof of a 1950s heist-noir movie. It settles us down while our antihero Mitch (Henry Shields, one of the three authors)  springs himself from prison assisted by various comedy officers and a startlingly athletic fence-vault, on the way to rob an incompetent Minneapolis bank of a legendary diamond.

 

 

 

This one is a departure for this well-hefted troupe, though marked by their typical leCoq precision, speedy slapstick and alarming physical fearlessness. Abandoning the “am-dram goes wromg” technique which won them an Olivier for The Play that goes Wrong and sustains their even funnier Peter Pan, this time they stay in stage character, classic farce tradition larded with some unexpected atmospheric singing (Elvis, gospel, dum-de-dum) and ingenious human props. The only deliberate sense of actorly struggle this time is in one memorable scene in the second Act, involving dodgy sideways aerialism I will not spoil by describing. The rest is a classic, albeit heavily embroidered broad ’n bandit plot, unashamedly retro at times. Because hey, they’re just not making 1950s screwball movies any more, and someone has to take up the baton…

 

 

 

So here’s Shields as tough Mitch, with co-authors Henry Lewis as Mr Freeboys the bank manager and Jonathan Sayer as the much-battered ageing intern Warren, who in a bald-wig and glasses combo looks eerily like a hasty cartoon of Will Gompertz of the BBC. Other seasoned Mischievites are Charlie Russell as Clarice the slinky moll and Nancy Wallinger (with a fine bluesy voice) as Ruth the amorous bank receptionist whose son Sam (Dave Hearn, a Mischief founder) lusts after Clarice and steals wallets and – Oh, look, you have to be there. Even if only not to miss the scenes in and around Clarice’s fold-up bed, a series of superb physical disasters, instant disguises and perilous tip-ups (how on earth do this company ever get through a run with all their limbs and skulls intact?). It reaching an apogee in an acrobatic accidental threesome, considerably more entertaining to contemplate than the one in the current injunction.

 

 

 
And so to Act 2: the robbery, with some breathtaking staging, lost trousers, more appalling puns, and fast and disciplined physical gags involving police paperwork and swoop-spec’d aunties which made me actually choke with giggles. There’s a recurring seagull gag too, which will stay with me for days in a happy glow of memory. And a nicely underacknowleged Beckettian surrealism in the stubborn inability of any character to notice the difference between a very big man with a luxuriant moustache, and impersonators a foot shorter and two feet narrower with lampshade-tassels stuck crookedly under their noses.

 

 
As a moody Sunday-afternoon old-noir-flick aficionado I also relished the Double Indemnity moment between Freeboys and Warren. It’s got everything a sweaty London evening needs: it’s daft and deft, pantomimic and parodic, physical and fantastical, pure pleasure delivered with dashing precision.

 
box office 0844 815 6131 to 2 October
rating four    4 Meece Rating

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THE FLICK Dorfman, SE1

LIGHTS! CAMERA!  SLOW BUT FASCINATING ACTION!  

 

 

We sit as if we are the cinema screen of a run-down fleapit in Massachusetts: we confront the back wall at projector window, and are occasionally dazzled by bright beams in the many blackouts. When showtime music ends, we face 100 empty seats between which two men languidly sweep up popcorn. That’s what we’re here for: to eavesdrop on these ordinary lives in their quiet desperations, desires and diversions, and monitor their interaction with Rose, the only woman: she is promoted to the projection box, lacing up the last 35mill non-digital projector in Worcester County.

 

 
A somewhat baleful reputation preceded Annie Baxter’s play, straight over from New York in Sam Gold’s production, with two of his original cast: it may have won a Pulitzer, but its length – three hours plus interval – apparently freaked out the off-Broadway audiences, some of whom wrote indignant messages about having had to sit for 1 hr 40 in the first half alone (though heaven knows, Mr Spielberg often asks far more of us, some of his films amounting almost to a hostage situation).

 

 

Anyway, they were quite wrong to leave. They’d have missed the drama of the great popcorn revenge, some of the most expressive body-language ever achieved while wringing out a mop, an electrifying recitation from Ezekiel, and one of the most devastating declarations of unrequited love since Viola. A bald, 35-year-old, lumpen male Viola, but its a full willow-cabin throb.

 

 
The two men are Matthew Maher as Sam, a beautifully nuanced unlikely hero. He stolidly holds on to his tiny seniority as he teaches skinny newcomer Avery (Jaygann Ayeh) about clearing up, disinfecting the popcorn machine and – when Rose joins them – about the routine ticket-stub scam which provides “dinner money” (one of our most senior critics admitted in the interval that he remembers that scam well from his distant youth in the old Curzon).

 

 

Slowly, for this is a deliberate, atmospheric play full of silences, we see them reflecting on the mess people leave – Avery shocked to see remains of hot-dogs he sold only hours before, Sam more annoyed at “outside food” sneaked in, until he remembers in a moment of existential revelation that he brings his own tamales in to other cinemas. Avery is edgy, troubled, and obsessive about saving the fragile beauty of 35-mill film and warding off digital: he’s a college boy on a break, the one black character but also the only middle-class one, an academic’s son. Sam, slower, enjoys a challenge of “six degrees of separation” in movie casts (“Michael Caine to Britney Spears” etc) which geeky Avery always wins. Rose is grungy, farouche: Sam worships her in silence, Avery yearns only for a lesson on her projector. Unseen, the owner Steve is selling up.

 

 

It is a delight, a gentle, subtle slow-building parable of how the inflated movie themes are reflected and outclassed by small real ones: race, ambition, sexual confusion, love, suicidality, family disruption and retardation, betrayal, honour and dishonour among thieves. People will call the long silences “Pinteresque” but they are far better, because rather than cynical menace they fill with subtler hopes, doubts and astonishments. Rather than laughing at losers in The Caretaker, here we root for them, want redemption. We nearly get it, and there is certainly a beautiful ironic joke at the end: Avery, wedded to the doctrine of celluloid’s truthfulness, gets some old film cans and they’re all animations or CGI-rich: Rugrats, Star Trek, Honey I Shrunk the Kids. As to why he’s carting them off , no spoilers. It’s a surprisingly good yarn.

 
Box office 020 7452 3000 to 15 June
Rating four   4 Meece Rating

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MY MOTHER SAID I NEVER SHOULD… St James Theatre, SW1

SIXTY YEARS, FOUR GENERATIONS: WHAT THE WOMEN DID

 

 

Say, first of all, that Maureen Lipman was born to play Doris, the Lancashire matriarch at the heart of Charlotte Keatley’s modern classic. In this revival she never misses a beat: without overdoing it Lipman can convulse an audience with a mere word (“Polytechnic” “End Terrace” ), or silence our breathing with a wrenching, gentle monologue expressing a hidden life. She carries Doris through: first a 1940’s housewife born illegitimate in 1900 in “reduced circumstances’ , becoming a mildly disappointed, undemonstrative no-nonsense mother. Then a mellower grandmother, holding family secrets; finally a fearless widowed octogenarian taking evening classes, kicking off her pop-socks in the sun, finally at ease. At times she is also required to be her five-year-old self, playing in a wasteground the farouche, unsupervised games of an earlier age when Doctors and Nurses stood in for sexual exploration. In every manifestation Lipman nails it.

 
The play tracks four generations of women from the war to 1985: Doris mothers Margaret, who grows up as a career woman (though her final promotion is to be PA to a young male graduate with dodgier grammar). Margaret’s daughter Jackie is a sixties kid, has baby Rosie by a married man, can’t keep her and lets Margaret take over while, in the shameful primness of that age, she plays big-sister and becomes a glamorous galleriste. With their various menfolk unseen – old Jack, American Ken, faithless Graham – the four women express much about motherhood and daughterhood which needs expressing: love, resentment, secrets, and the mother-daughter misunderstandings inevitable in a fast-changing century. As Doris says, each generation demands more than the one before, and so finds its own disappointments. Doris had the mangle-bound hardship and a long marriage with no exit; Margaret wage-earning responsibility without prestige, Jackie freedom and adventure but a broken maternal heart. Rosie seems, as the play ends on her 16th birthday, to be the winner, the end of the evolution. But one can’t help working out that she would now be in her forties, battling with IVF or fretting about sexting teenagers, an endless mortgage and a husband with a midlife crisis.…

 

 
That’s not in the play of course, but the fact that one muses on it shows that Keatley’s narrative, through artful time-shifts, still has heft and strength : the rarity of her pitiless focus on ordinary women’s experience made the play a sensation in 1985. Her ear is pitch-perfect down the decades: from Doris’ typical wartime injunction to her piano-bashing daughter “less passion and more perseverance”, to the winceable moment when the busy working mother Margaret – her teenage daughter having had unprotected sex – moans “If you’d asked me..” and gets the devastating reply from Jackie “I did say I wanted to talk to you , and you said we can talk while we go round the garden centre”. Ouch.

 

 

 
There are many such moments, superbly underwritten but devastating, as the story unfolds. Katie Brayben is a strong Jackie: conflicted, heartbroken about the baby but ambitious; Caroline Faber gives Margaret, the most cheated of them all, a weary solidity; Serena Manteghi has a tricky job, since we only see Rosie from a hyperactive eight years old to a bratty sixteen, and the capering and spoilt-kid cuteness make it – in any production – difficult to get the audience to empathize as Margaret and Jackie fight over who she should live with. Manteghi could – maybe will as the show settles – tone down the capering a bit.

 

 
It is set rather bleakly in a white box amid TV screens , flashing newsreels and showing the year and the place (though rather too quickly, you could miss it if you didn’t know the play’s structure) but props warm it up from time to time. A bigger quibble in Paul Robinson’s production for Tiny FIres is that the odd interludes where the cast become small girls playing – necessary in Keatley’s vision to define their innate ferocity – feel intrusive. They smell too much of a 1980s drama-school exercise. But they’re in the play so must be honoured. And Lipman can do that stuff , and make us laugh and believe it, as well as she does everything else. What a marvel.

 

 

box office 0844 264 2140 to 21 May.
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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